Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 11, 2022 7:20 pm 
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Once more the sadness of being a wonderfully humanoid robot

South Korean-born American filmmaker Kogonada's first film, Columbus (2017), seemed to be trying a little too hard to be special, but it was still distinctive and memorable. His sophomore effort, After Yang, developed from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, is so fey, airless, and slow it winds up being insufferable. The usually suave Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote in his review rather bluntly that when you're stuck in it, its cloying perfection will make you "start to wish you’d gone to see the new 'Jackass' movie instead."

After Yang is that bad, or rather, that exquisite and self-satisfied. It has gloomy-beautiful cinematography by Benjamin Loeb, who, evidently to satisfy the filmmaker's stated love of the Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu often shoots dialogue scenes from a considerable distance or peeking from behind walls, though the detachment is destroyed by accompanying saccharine moments (of which there are plenty - being a sensitive android is sweetly sad) with surges of sweeping strings by L.A. composer Aska Matsumiya, with help from the renowned Ryuichi Sakamoto. A wealth of talent is squandered here.

The title After Yang signals the film's first flaw: the absence of its most appealing character. Yang (Justin H. Min) is the family's android, which (or who) malfunctions fatally shortly after the film starts, and never comes back. This would be like leaving David (Haley Joel Osment) on the tecnno-scrap hap through all of Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. All we get of Yang later on are a few brief, repetitious, overly self-consciously edited frames ripped from his memory file by an unscrupulous but decent repairman, after the future-world version of the Geek Squad has tested Yang and charged $250 for doing absolutely nothing. The muted outrage of Jake (Colin Farrell) suggests that however far in the unspecified future this is, $250 is still charging a lot for an unhelpful repair assessment.

Colin Farrell seems on mega-doses of Valium here in scenes that are (too-) exquisitely set up and shot of just-so Asian-influenced interiors (both home and restaurant). He runs an artisanal tea shop and there is chit-chat about tea, even with Yang, that never quite goes anywhere. His wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a Black, British-accented, shaved-headed corporate executive quite without any winning traits. Their adopted, Chinese-born little girl, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, who's actually Indonesian, and a singing sensation; she gets to deliver a bar or two of a song at the end), is unbearably adorable. Kogonada unknowingly makes all this film's children loud, spoiled American kid types.

After Yang gets mired in a mass of trivial details and fails to do justice to its main topic, the familiar but still-fascinating one of the future of artificial intelligence: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And there are moments of homage to the original Blade Runner film. One may think more of Spielberg's A.I.,, though. This is another treatment of the idea of an android's muted but heartbreaking sadness at perhaps loving but not being quite human, at being a very good but not-quite-good-enough copy. Yang's class of creation is called "techno-sapiens." He turns out to have had a whole hidden life Jake hardly knew about, frequenting a coffee shop where he met a female-techno employee called Ada (Haley Lu Richardson, who played one of the main characters in Columbus). It's just hinted that between them there was robot-romance. It seems androids dream of other androids.

Yang's kind of techno-sapien is crafted as a "sibling," himself specifically programmed to act as a Chinese-origin older brother for an adopted Chinese girl to keep her company while feeding her a wealth of China-related "fun facts" to give her a sense of her "heritage."

The film thus also takes on, or alludes to, themes of ethnic identity in the "multi-cultural" family, Irish white guy, British Black wife, Chinese-born kid; with being a clone hinted at as another "ethnicity" as well whatever his-her-its designated race or national origin. Another theme, perhaps a bigger one, is of an alienated future family that isn't one, whose parents rely on a clone much nicer and more human than they to do the work of raising their child. Yet another theme, resolved only visually, is of the mystery of memory. Here as so often tricky editing is meant to offer up some profound truth about that mystery that winds up only being a pretty visual effect.

Yang's fatal malfunction is devastating, but also ultimately final. (Perhaps the message is that you should always buy a new android and not a reconditioned used model.) Kogonada makes the path of the film a sort of search by Jake for a solution, but the screenplay's meandering and Farrell's lack of energy combine to make the action run out of steam well before the unusually long-seeming 96-minute run-time has thankfully come to an end.

After Yang, 96 mins., seems like the perfect kind of twee, self-satisfied picture to be adored at Sundance and it did show there in January 2022, but it officially debuted in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes in July 2021; It also was shown at Honolulu and Chicago, and its internet and limited US theatrical release by A24 was March 4, 2022. It has had a good number of raves and and equal number of pans according the Metacritic, which gives it a score of 79%, a lot better than the much more interesting and touching A.I got in 2001 65%).

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